President Trump toured the mask production assembly line on May 5, 2020, at Honeywell International Inc. in Phoenix.

President Trump toured the mask production assembly line on May 5, 2020, at Honeywell International Inc. in Phoenix. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

When Politics and Procurement Mix, The Effects Can Be Deadly

Important components of the pandemic response have bypassed essential rules and protocols, but the problems go beyond the current crisis.

As the national response to the pandemic and associated economic crisis continues to unfold, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are again in territory where politics meets procurement. And that should be a concern for every American.Let’s start with the obvious: The effective and efficient execution of any portion of the pandemic response largely hinges on the effective and efficient performance of our acquisition system. The process by which federal contracts and grants are awarded is critical to support the manufacture and distribution of protective equipment, ventilators, or therapeutics and to deliver assistance to individuals and businesses struggling to survive. It therefore follows that the responsiveness of the acquisition system to meet these critical needs in large part determines the efficiency and effectiveness of our government’s response.This is why it is so disturbing to read about cases in which important components of the national response have involved clear efforts to simply ignore the rules and protocols, from basic due diligence and pricing analyses to transparency. Yet, that is exactly what we have seen too often in recent months, including actions associated with Project Airbridge; sole source contracts for vital equipment that proved faulty; tens of millions of dollars wasted on a contract for ventilators that the Health and Human Services Department had to terminate; a complete lack of transparency around huge contracts for vaccine distribution; contracts awarded to an 11-day-old company that just happened to be founded by a former administration official; enormous grants made to a company in a manner that has raised serious ethical and other concerns, and more. Even worse, all of these cases share another common denominator: the actions were directed and sometimes executed by senior political officials who, it could fairly be argued, are not versed in good acquisition practices and who may be driven by incentives other than the mission itself.

To be fair, there is a lot of frustration with and a lack of confidence in federal acquisition. And to an extent, that frustration is understandable. The system can be slow, rigid, and overly bureaucratic. But the system also has built into it a wide array of authorities designed to deal with emergencies such as those we face today, authorities that, when properly exercised, actually do enable the kind of velocity and response needed to deal with exigent circumstances. Instead, we have witnessed too many instances in which senior officials have run roughshod over government acquisition professionals and the system of checks and balances designed to protect taxpayers—with less than optimal results.

Moreover, in some cases, some of these actions may actually be illegal. For example, reports suggest that political appointees have directly entered into some of these contracts, even though one of the fundamental tenets of federal procurement is that only a warranted contracting officer can commit the U.S. government to a contract. No member of the cabinet, no political staffer, no general, has that authority. It’s really as simple as that.

Many will remember that during the second half of the George W. Bush administration and for portions of the Obama administration, there were scores of hearings and investigations into acquisition issues and scandals—some real and some imagined. And while one can debate the degree to which they uncovered any pattern of legal or ethical violations, individually and together they did help clarify gaps in workforce resources, training and development, as well as in smart acquisition planning and strategy.  

At the same time, some of these “scandals” essentially became proxies for larger political debates, particularly over the Bush Administration’s conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequent reconstruction. That politicization was largely unprecedented and significantly contributed to what most objective observers argue is today a largely risk averse acquisition workforce, one that tends to hew to rigidity rather than appropriate flexibility and creativity, largely because they have little faith that their leadership will support risk or that their performance will be evaluated objectively.Many of us shuddered when President Trump repeatedly made clear his animus toward one bidder on a major Defense contract or when he arbitrarily declared that Amazon’s contract with the U.S. Postal Service was a rip off. Prior to that, many were stunned with his very public denunciations of two defense contractors—denunciations that resulted in immediate and measurable drops in those companies’ market value. And this doesn’t even begin to address questions that have arisen around certain large border wall contracts. In none of those cases were his opinions informed by data. More importantly, they had no legitimate place in the deliberations or pricing discussions that were happening at the time. And now we have political appointees blithely deciding to take things to a new and even more dangerous level where they are actually directing awards in ways that appear contrary to the basic tenets of good public procurement or governance.

Acquisition defines the critical intersection of the public and private sectors and is central to the government’s ability to meet its many missions in a manner that is in the best interests of the American people. That is why the system is also specifically designed to be devoid of politics or political pressure.  When that basic ethos is violated, it should be a matter of real, collective concern against which we push back hard. The integrity, credibility, and effectiveness of the process depends on it.